Closely Watched Films: The Czech New Wave

Many reviewers of Jan Hrebejk’s new film, Up and Down, have astutely noted its similarities to the Czech New Wave of the 1960s – its pointed criticisms of contemporary Czech society, its eye for the absurdities of everyday life, and, perhaps most of all, its unpredictable careens from hilarious comedy to discomforting drama. Along with those qualities, the casting of Petr Forman, son of Milos, a leading figure of the earlier movement, as a disaffected émigré is perfect – a self-reflexive wink to those in the know.

The film’s release, then, is an excellent occasion to look back at this exciting movement from forty years ago – not only to appreciate the history for its own sake but also to assess the contributions of the new generation of Czech filmmakers, the self-named “Velvet Generation.” Before beginning this brief retrospective, though, let me clarify that Up and Down is not alone in being compared to these earlier works. Similar comparisons have been made with other noteworthy films from the Czech Republic over the last decade. In 1996, there was Kolya, winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, about the unlikely relationship between a middle-aged womanizer and the five-year-old Russian boy abandoned by his runaway mother. Set before the “Velvet Revolution” of 1989, the film swings from the seriousness of Soviet soldiers on Prague streets and bureaucratic interrogations to the comedy of the boy’s intrusions into his stepfather’s workplace and bedroom seductions. But, even more deserving of comparisons with the New Wave, was Divided We Fall, from 2000, also directed by Up and Down‘s Hrebejk. Though the subject matter is grim – German Occupation, anti-Semitism, Nazi collaboration – the film’s overall comic tone prevails, ending not in tragedy for the Jewish fugitive or the couple concealing him but rather with surprising acts of life-giving reconciliation and social reintegration.

Forty years ago, as filmmakers throughout the Soviet bloc countries strained against political repression and the rigid aesthetic principles of “socialist realism,” young Czech filmmakers distinguished themselves with the same ironic mixing of comedy and tragedy found in these recent films, setting themselves apart from other East European dissenters of the time and bringing them to international prominence. Liberalization came slowly at first, then sped up in the Prague Spring of 1968, only to end abruptly with the Soviet-led invasion that same year. Films not yet completed or released were shelved; others in circulation were withdrawn; still others were “banned forever.” Key filmmakers Milos Forman, Ivan Passer, and Ján Kadár chose exile in the U.S. Others like Jirí Menzel and Vera Chytilová remained behind, waiting for the bans on them to be lifted.

While this history is useful for a full appreciation of the films, their appeal is universal – that was part of their international success forty years ago and continues to keep them vital today. One of the most distinctive is a dazzling feminist allegory from 1966, written and directed by Vera Chytilová, called Daisies. Two young women, looking for happiness and purpose in an absurd, male-dominated world, give in to their own anarchic, self-destructive impulses. A surrealist gem, the film proves that great avant-garde cinema need not be a somber affair.

Less experimental are two films awarded Hollywood Oscars for Best Foreign Language Films – first Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos’s The Shop on Main Street in 1965, then Jirí Menzel’s Closely Watched Trains (from which I’ve taken my title) in 1967. Like Divided We Fall, both films are set during the Nazi Occupation, and both use humor to develop their themes. In Shop on Main Street, the comic miscommunications between a nearly deaf Jewish shop owner and her “Aryan controller” are eventually displaced by growing seriousness until tragic outcomes are reached – the old woman’s death, the collaborator’s suicide. Even though Closely Watched Trains also ends in the protagonist’s death, the film is more successful in blending its comic and tragic strains throughout: an awkward young railway guard overcomes his feelings of sexual inadequacy, then strikes back at the Germans by blowing up a munitions train – political and sexual repression both joyfully subverted.

Of all the Czech New Wave filmmakers, though, it is Milos Forman who is best-known to U.S. audiences, thanks to the critical successes of his American-made films, especially One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and Amadeus (1984). Before emigrating, Forman wrote and directed two low-key comedies of everyday life that epitomize the New Wave style, Loves of a Blonde (1965) and The Firemen’s Ball (1967). In cinéma vérité style, both expose the banality of Czech society and the incompetence of its authoritarian bureaucracy. The satire of Firemen’s Ballis especially pointed, earning it the distinction of being one of only four films “banned forever” by the new government the Soviets installed in ’68.

For many years only well-worn or poorly transferred copies of these films were available. Now Closely Watched Trains, The Shop on Main Street, and the two Forman films are part of Criterion’s top-notch DVD collection. And Facets Video has re-released Daisies on tape and disk. So, with a new Czech comedy now in U.S. theaters, I recommend that you use the occasion to “closely watch” these comic masterpieces again or to enjoy them for the first time.